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The term “po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness” or “PC” sprang into public view in the late 1980s in the con­tro­versy around Al­lan Bloom’s The

Clos­ing of the Amer­i­can Mind. As a col­lo­ca­tion, or fixed com­bi­na­tion of words, “po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness” has a par­al­lel in “po­lit­i­cally cor­rect”. To­gether they ap­proach 14 mil­lion Google hits.

But it’s a mis­lead­ing phrase, and it’s now dif­fi­cult to use it ob­jec­tively or dis­pas­sion­ately. Pol­i­tics has to do with manag­ing and gov­er­nance of an area. And the core mean­ing of “cor­rect” is “con­sis­tent with the known or ob­served facts”. But “po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness” now means one of two things: “lan­guage or be­hav­iour which avoids be­ing hurt­ful, dis­crim­i­na­tory or of­fen­sive”; or “con­sis­tent with a par­tic­u­lar ide­ol­ogy”, that ide­ol­ogy of­ten be­ing char­ac­terised by some com­men­ta­tors as at least lib­eral, or more of­ten rad­i­cal.

This year “PC” has been vil­i­fied in the pre-pres­i­den­tial shout­ing and heav­ing on the right of pol­i­tics in the US, and the tone is be­com­ing ever more stri­dent. It is a great pity that this term has been so strongly rad­i­calised and ide­ol­o­gised (I apol­o­gise for two ugly words, but they are ap­pro­pri­ate). Be­cause avoid­ing hurt­ful or dis­crim­i­na­tory lan­guage is to be ap­plauded. PC has helped to make us aware of lan­guage that can make peo­ple feel bad about them­selves. We are much more aware of the pos­si­ble neg­a­tive ef­fect of eth­nonyms (names of peo­ple’s na­tions and races), or words based on age, gen­der, sex­ual pref­er­ence, education, abled­ness and sim­i­lar fac­tors.

But this isn’t a mat­ter of pol­i­tics, ex­cept in­so­far as it in­volves the values of manag­ing a so­ci­ety. And it should not be a mat­ter of cor­rect­ness, which im­plies a bi­nary right/wrong judg­ment. We should be talk­ing about some­thing like “so­cial con­sid­er­ate­ness”. It’s a mat­ter of in­ter­act­ing with peo­ple with em­pa­thy and un­der­stand­ing.

But, per­haps prompted by the name it­self, PC is now taken as an ide­ol­ogy, which is cer­tainly po­lit­i­cal; it is as­so­ci­ated prin­ci­pally with those to the left of cen­tre. And it is taken as right/wrong, with penal­ties for those who fail to be­have ac­cord­ing to PC.

PC has given rise to at­tempts at con­trol­ling what we say, but there is a se­ri­ous is­sue of how all that fits with free­dom of speech.

And PC has placed out of bounds a whole range of good-hu­moured, whim­si­cal or teas­ing uses of lan­guage be­tween peo­ple who know each other and who ap­pre­ci­ate a witty in­ter­change of conversation.

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